Friday, September 30, 2011

A long search comes to an end

Back  in 1984 I wrote an article and sold it to the UK gardening magazine Amateur Gardening.  It wasn't my first published piece of work - but it was my first paid for piece.  I subsequently sold many articles to AG and other gardening magazines - but you never forget your first sale.  It was about a cane stemmed begonia, Begonia 'Lucerne' (AKA "Coralline de Lucerne", "Lucerna").  I'd had it as a houseplant for many years (and moves) since acquiring a cutting from one of my old schools (I was a science teacher back in those days). 

Alas, I lost the plant about 1990, and, despite constant plant hunting, never found it again.  It seemed to be one of those begonias that were passed around from friend to friend rather than being stocked by nurseries and garden centres.  That was, until Wednesday this week.  I was working in Padstow and made a small detour on my journey back to drop into the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery near Lostwithiel in Cornwall.  This is one of my local favourites, with an excellent selection of interesting plants so, whenever I'm in the area, I try and get in a visit.  It's just been revamped and one of the new features is a larger display greenhouse for the more tender stuff.  Right at the front entrance was a specimen of my long sought plant.  Inside were a few more.  How could I resist.  So Begonia 'Lucerne' has rejoined the household plant collection.

Begonia 'Lucerne'
It's too tender for winters outside in the UK but, going by my experience from all those years ago, will be quite happy in a semi shaded spot al fresco during the warmer months.  Even overwintering doesn't need a lot of heat.  It seemed to tolerate as low as 5C - though it prefers higher.  No problem, it can come into the house for the winter and then be acclimatised to outdoor living in my little shade house in mid spring.

So, what's so attractive about it?  Well, unlike many begonias, this one is a giant.  Each stem can hit 8ft / 250 cm in height, clothed with large, attractively silver spotted leaves with red undersides, and, at intervals, throwing out a densely clustered spray of red flowers.  New stems are produced from the base - albeit with no great freedom - or by the occasional branching higher up the stem and, over time, a very attractive multi stemmed plant can ensue.  To me it has an air of elegance about it that sets it apart from many other begonias.

I can understand why it's not more widespread in cultivation.  The tall cane-like stems are quite brittle and it doesn't produce much cutting material - though stem tip cuttings root easily enough.  My newly purchased plant has three stems, two from basal stems (or, more likely, two cuttings in the same pot) and a low branch.  That produces a fairly full effect but I'll hopefully end up with some additional stems to bulk it out a little further.  And, next summer, it can bring height and interest to a little corner of my garden to add to the sub tropical feel.

It's been a long time away.  Welcome back, Lucerne.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

On Gardening and Greyhounds

Pippa, my hole digging greyhound, passed her 10th birthday a month ago.  For a big dog that's often a ripe old age - but greyhounds are different.  Supreme athletes, they live longer than other dogs of comparable size and weight.  She's still extremely fit and healthy (far fitter than me!) and could well live till 14 or more. So, more holes to come!

She's the second rescued ex racing greyhound to live here.  Our first was Sky, a handsome black boy of unknown age when Maria fell in love with him at a local rescue kennel in 1996.  He lived for another 8 years so was probably about 14 when he finally succumbed to old age.  Pippa joined the household in January 2006 to replace our old, recently deceased whippet and provide some company for our daughter's Jack Russell puppy.

There are two questions I'm always asked about her (and about Sky previously).  The first question is always "do you race her/him/it?" Depending on the audience I either explain that she's retired from racing or, if I'm feeling facetious, "I used to, but she always beats me and it's sooooo discouraging."  The second question is "how can you have such a big dog in a small garden without her wrecking it?"  And in the answer to that question lies my love of greyhounds.

I've known sighthounds - whippets, greyhounds, salukis, lurchers and others - all my adult life.  My parents owned, bred and showed the Whitgift Whippets and Manchester Terriers.  I've spent many a happy hour at shows - and even happier hours watching them do what they most love.  Run.  Fast.  So I certainly didn't object when Maria fell  in love with Sky.  He'd make a good companion to the little whippet bitch she'd just bought me to celebrate our moving in to the current house and garden.  He did, and from that point on I added greyhounds to my list of most loved dogs.

There are a lot of misconceptions about greyhounds.  "They're running dogs so they must need a lot of exercise.  They all wear muzzles so they must be viscious.  They're disobedient.  They're stupid."  I've heard them all.  None are true.

This is their preferred position:

Greyhounds will happily spend 21 out of 24 hours resting or asleep.  Pippa is no exception.  She spends the other 3 hours as follows:

  • 60 minutes for the morning run.  Here she is walked to the local fields and woodland and let off the lead to run around like a lunatic for 20-30 minutes.  This is all she needs.  Greyhounds are sprinters.  They expend so much energy within a short time that they are soon exhausted.  Even at ten years old she can still hit over 40 miles per hour.  In her racing days she would have hit 45mph.  The only other local dog that can match her is my daughter's and another walker's lurchers - both sighthounds.  All other dogs are too slow to even interest her - though she's very friendly.
  • 30 minutes for the evening walk.  On the road, on the lead, an amble compared to the morning - but enough.
  • 30 minutes eating.  Twice a day - greyhound stomachs are small and overfeeding can cause bloat and torsion problems.  But she does like spicy leftovers and dog food coated with interesting sauces.
  • 30 minutes following me around hoping for biscuits.  Or cakes.  Well, anything food related will do.  She's not fussy.
  • 29 minutes moving from her bed to the sofa and back again.  Or re-arranging her sleeping position.  She likes her comfort.
Which leaves 1 minute out of her busy day.  Digging time (averaged over a month).

No time allocated for guard duties?  Greyhounds don't guard.  Visitors are either totally ignored or treated as members of the family.

Not much time in there for wrecking a garden - as long as I can stop her digging.  For the vast majority of time she's content to wander about and do no harm at all.  Yes she relieves herself but I've no lawn so that's not a problem.

She wears a racing muzzle when out.  Not because of any manic or homicidal tendencies but to protect the local wildlife.  Greyhounds have an overwhelming prey drive - and can spot a squirrel, rabbit, cat or one of the local deer hundreds of yards away.  They will always chase.  The muzzles are to ensure that, should when they catch up with anything, they don't kill it.  Pippa is well trained and will always come back to us - but only after the chase, not during.  It's one of the pitfalls of owning high speed hunters.  All sighthounds are the same.  But it does mean my garden was cat free within weeks of her arriving.  Word soon got around the local feline population that my garden had a very fast dog in residence. 

Greyhounds are often described as stupid.  They are not as trainable as the likes of sheepdogs or gundogs, I'll freely admit, but it was so easy to house train her and teach her to respect the garden (the odd digging episode apart).  Natural idleness helps.  They walk beautifully on a lead.  And they are bright enough not to chase garden birds, something many dogs never manage.  They know they fly away - so they just ignore them.

In other words the perfect dog for a busy gardener.  Gentle, affectionate, no guarding tendencies to wear trampled paths along the boundary edges, and, providing they get their daily run, a general indolence that makes sloths look hyperactive.  That's how I can have a big dog in a small garden and still grow a lot of interesting plants.

Now the final bit.  Would I want to be re-incarnated as a greyhound?  No.  To the racing fraternity they are commodities.  If they don't make the grade they're out.  Retirement is often at 4 or less.  And retirement often means euthanasia - or abandonment.  Any rescue kennel will have it's complement of ex-racing greyhounds - and not all will enjoy Pippa's fate.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day September 2011

Pressure of work and other commitments have left me little time for blogging - or enjoying other's blogs - over the last few weeks but I've made some time and taken some photographs for my contribution to Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, kindly hosted by May Dreams Garden.  As in previous months I've only shown plants in flower today - although some of the photos are older.  Although it's not that cold yet we've had a lot of wind and rain in the last couple of weeks and plants have suffered.

At this time of year my hardy and tender begonias come into their own.  I grow both the smaller white form and the more vigorous pink form of Begonia grandis evansiana without any protection in garden.  They've survived -8C on many occasions and come back to flower in September and October before dying off as the nights get longer.  They've both flowered a little earlier this year after our warm spring so I'm enjoying a better display than normal.  Their only problem is that they can be a little invasive, reproducing by small tubers that develop in the leaf axils at this time of year.  These get scattered around the garden and new plants pop up the following year.  Established plants can develop decently large tubers for even faster growth.

Begonia grandis evansiana 'Alba'

Begonia grandis evansiana
The 'Nonstop F1' series of bedding begonias are another mainstay in the garden.  Available in a multitude of colours, they're seed grown for flowering in the same season but also produce tubers that can be overwintered frost free for following years.  I've got a few different ones but I'm only illustrating the white form today.  They flower all summer and well into the autumn and are well worth the initial expense.
Begonia 'NonStop F1'
I love Hedychiums - the ginger lilies - for their dramatic foliage and intricate flowers.  I thought I had four survivors from the last two winter's extreme cold - H.greenii, H.'Pink Hybrid', H.coccineum 'Tara' and H.'Stephen' - but a couple of weeks ago I noticed a little shoot where my small clump of H.gardnerianum had been.  So now I have five.  But only one has flowered so far.  Hedychium 'Stephen' is variously described as a form or a hybrid of H.densiflorum.  It's definitely my most reliable Hedychium for flowering though the spectacular and sweetly scented foot long heads only last a week in beauty.  With luck I'll get a second flowering later in the year from the new stems that are already developing.

Hedychium 'Stephen'
I was surprised back in May when Ipomea indica, the perennial blue morning glory, started back into growth against my South house wall.  It's definitely tender in the UK.  But it's survived and, at the beginning of September, flowered.  Each flower lasts a day before withering but a constant succession develop from spiky heads in the upper leaf axils.  Here's a couple of blooms from today:

Ipomea indica
A low spreader rather than a climber and with considerably smaller blue trumpets than its more tropical relative is Convolvulus mauritanicus.  I've written about this before - but it's still going strong after starting to flower in June.

Convolvulus mauritanicus
One reason why the Ipomea has survived could be the evergreen bulk of a myrtle in front of the climber.  This was one of my first plantings in the garden when I moved here fifteen years ago.  At the time I believed it was tender so it got a choice spot against my South wall.  I know better now.  Here in South West England it's tough as old boots.  I could have grown it in the open garden.  No matter.  This is its flowering time, little white powderpuffs adorning the glossy green foliage.

Myrtus communis
The common blue passion flower, Passiflora caerulea, has been a fixture in the garden for many years.  I have it trained up an old cherry tree and every year it delights, producing trails of foliage dotted with fat buds that open to the intricate flowers.

Passiflora caerulea
I've grown other passion flowers in the past - and will again (although 'Purple Haze', added earlier this year grew well but then died on me), but this is definitely one of the most decorative for our cool temperate climate.

I grow a few fuchsias in the garden but my most reliable has to be Fuchsia 'Genii'.  Red and purple bell flowers are not that exotic but combine them with bright golden foliage and good hardiness and it's a  plant well worth growing.  If winter doesn't do it for me I cut it hard back in early spring and it regularly makes 4-5 ft / 120-150cm of growth in a year.  Flowering starts in June and goes on forever (or till winter, whichever comes sooner).

Fuchsia 'Genii'
I'm used to Epimediums flowering in spring but one I bought earlier this year seems to continually produce little arching wands hung with yellow flowers.  It may settle down next year but I'm not complaining about bonus flowers in September.  Especially when they are as attractive as this:

Epimedium x franchettii 'Brimstone Butterfly'
I'm shortly adding to my small collection of Epimediums to provide extra spring colour in the garden so, with luck, one or two more of these Chinese species and forms will provide similar interest over a long season.

Iochroma grandiflora is doing well in it's warm corner and building up in flowering intensity.  I photographed this flower display a few days ago though there are similar displays in evidence today:

Iochroma grandiflora
I definitely want to keep this one alive through the winter.  It's got lots of potential here in Plymouth.

Finally, who can resist the little faces of pansies.  Not me.  I always grow a few for their long season of flower, even in semi shade.